Bryce, James, Viscount Bryce (1838–1922), jurist, historian, and politician
by Christopher Harvie

Bryce, James, Viscount Bryce (1838–1922), jurist, historian, and politician, was born in Arthur Street, Belfast, on 10 May 1838, the eldest son of , schoolteacher and geologist.

Family and education

The Bryce family had been bonnet lairds (landowning farmers) in Dechmont in the north of Lanarkshire, near Coatbridge. Bryce's grandfather became a leader of the more liberal element in the Scottish Anti-Burgher Secession church, taking charges both in the far north of the country, at Wick, in Caithness, and after 1805 in Killaig, in the Glens of Antrim; his son married Margaret (1813–1903), the daughter of James Young, a Belfast merchant. As Ulster Scots the Bryces—a talented family of eleven children (including )—were part of that Presbyterian enlightenment which had its issue in the United Irishmen and in the political ideas of such as William Drennan and Henry Joy MacCracken: a political community which was, ironically until the union of 1800, virtually indivisible from the covenanting radicalism of south-west Scotland, which had such a profound impact on the ideology of the American revolutionaries. While Presbyterianism was forced into line, the Bryces continued radical, refusing the state's offer of subvention through the regium donum, thus preserving the republicanism of the Cameronians and the Queensferry manifesto. Even in his obituary, The Times observed that James Bryce's ‘language and views undoubtedly encouraged hostility to British monarchical and aristocratic institutions’ (The Times, 23 Jan 1922).

Bryce spent his first eight years in Ulster, but in 1846 followed his father, who was appointed rector, to the high school of Glasgow, and then for a year went to study under his uncle Dr Reuben John Bryce in Belfast, before entering the University of Glasgow in 1854, at a time when the deductive traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment were still alive, though his personal development also owed much to the sort of close, and alternately didactic and libertarian, family life characteristic of the Scottish professional classes, particularly on long summer holidays in the highlands or on the Antrim coast. He inherited a family fascination with natural history and at the age of twenty-one he contributed to a Flora of the Island of Arran, published by his father in 1859. Bryce acquired a delight in walking, swimming, fishing, and climbing, and shared his Irish relatives' absorption in their own Celtic traditions. He attended Glasgow University while it still occupied its Renaissance buildings in the High Street, torn down a decade later: ‘There was no better way’, he wrote at the end of his life, ‘of understanding the Scotch spirit as it has been ever since the middle of the sixteenth century’ (Fisher, James Bryce, 1.16). His professor of logic, Robert Buchanan, was a disciple of the great Thomas Reid. Reid's ‘common-sense’ philosophy, with its assumption of an immanent core of ‘consciousness’ linking and moderating sense perception, remained the basis of Bryce's non-dogmatic Christianity (H. A. L. Fisher found him ‘curiously exempt from metaphysical misgivings and scruples’), as well as of the catholicity of his social and political interests. But the university was also beginning to change with the immigration of English academics, notably Edmund Law Lushington, Tennyson's brother-in-law. It seems to have been Lushington's influence that sent Bryce south in 1857, after his Glasgow degree, on a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford. Curiously, Bryce did not compete for a Snell exhibition to Balliol, the usual route for Glasgow graduates; but his seceder convictions would be against giving any aid to the Scottish Episcopal church: the ground for Snell's benefaction.

Despite an attempt to make him subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles by the tory president, Dr John Wilson (one suspects that Wilson was immobilized by the complexity of Scottish sectarian legalism), Bryce had a very successful career at Trinity from 1857 to 1862, following the literae humaniores (Greats) curriculum which also contrived to have much deliberate reference to contemporary politics. He took a first class in moderations in 1859, the best first of the year in Greats in 1861, and graduated BA in 1862, although, as a nonconformist, he never proceeded to the MA. This was a particularly exciting period in the history of the university, when the reforms of the Oxford University Act of 1854 were beginning to take effect, and the insistence on open competition for fellowships meant that many colleges were being colonized, notably from next-door Balliol under the sway of Benjamin Jowett. Bryce's relation with Jowett was one of guarded friendliness, but he encountered as a private tutor one Balliol graduate who became his lifelong friend and collaborator, Albert Venn Dicey. Most of Bryce's friends, not surprisingly, were from this milieu: enlightened, radical, and in origins to a great extent Scottish or northern English. Although active in the union (then important for its library) as librarian, secretary, and in 1863 president, Bryce joined most of his intellectual contemporaries in such groups as the Oxford Essay Society, founded by the somewhat older generation of Matthew Arnold, George Joachim Goschen, and Arthur Hugh Clough, and the smaller Old Mortality Society, which included Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hill Green, Courtenay Ilbert, Aeneas Mackay, and Thomas Edward Holland. The latter group adopted advanced democratic radicalism, secularism, and university extension, and warmed in particular to the project of Italian unity, represented in Oxford by the Taylorian teacher of Italian, Aurelio Saffi, one-time triumvir of the Roman Republic (1848–9) along with Giuseppe Mazzini.

A radical of the 1860s

Bryce's enthusiasm for Italy almost led him to volunteer to join Garibaldi in the latter's Sicilian campaign of 1860, but he chose to finish his degree, stay in Oxford, and compete for a fellowship at Oriel, to which he was elected in 1862, retaining it until his marriage in 1889. Within this Oxford milieu he was noted less for originality of mind or the secular saintliness of T. H. Green as for his endless good humour and organizational ability: ‘He does not seem to possess extraordinary, so much as admirably balanced, talents’, wrote Dicey during a visit to Heidelberg in 1863. ‘He stirs us all up, rushes around like a shepherd's dog, collects his friends, makes us meet, leads us into plans and adventures and keeps everything going’ (Fisher, James Bryce, 1.59). Both in the university and during reading-party tours to the continent (he studied law under Karl Adolf von Vangerow at Heidelberg University in 1863) he established many enduring links with continental jurists and historians. As with many of his contemporaries, Bryce used the expansion of the European railway and steamer system to extend his range as a walker and mountaineer. Besides the almost obligatory ascents in Switzerland, he climbed in Iceland in 1872, the Pyrenees in 1873, Mauna Loa in Hawaii in 1883, the Rockies, Mount Etna in 1903, and even (at the age of seventy-five) Mount Myogi-San in Japan in 1913. Mount Bryce, in the Rockies, was named after him. Before his death he had in fact visited practically every part of the globe except the polar regions and present-day Indonesia. In 1876 he was the first European to climb Mount Ararat, after travelling with his friend Aeneas Mackay, largely by river-steamer, from St Petersburg via Moscow to the Caucasus. An ascent of the Tatras in Carpathia followed in 1878. Not surprisingly he was elected to the Alpine Club in 1879, and was its president in 1899–1901.

As was common with young graduates of the period Bryce moved to London and studied for the bar, at Sir John Holker's chambers in Lincoln's Inn, being called in 1867 and joining the northern circuit. With Frederic Harrison, he also acted as a lecturer and examiner in law for the inns of court. At the same time he contributed to liberal literary and political periodicals, notably the Contemporary Review and the Fortnightly Review, writing in particular on European politics, history, and academic reform. Educational improvement became of immediate concern between 1865 and 1866, when under Frederick Temple and with two other college fellows, T. H. Green and Joshua Girling Fitch, he served as an assistant commissioner on the Taunton commission into endowed schools, something which developed his interest in secondary education and, because he was given the north-west to report on, led to a close acquaintance with Manchester. In 1868 he became part-time lecturer in law, and later professor at the city's Owens College, founded in 1850, drafting its act of incorporation in 1871. This connection, which lasted until 1874, forged enduring links with Manchester's radical and nonconformist élite, the Darbishires, Taylors, and Ashtons, and the city's liberal bishop, James Fraser. But Bryce's real influence in Manchester was exerted in favour of the reform and extension of Oxford University, in support of which he organized a substantial demonstration on 8 April 1866 in the Free Trade Hall. He also involved himself in the agitation for women's legal equality and higher education. He was a founding member of Girton College, Cambridge, and later, as an MP, he carried the Guardianship of Infants Bill in 1886, which gave women equal rights in custody cases. But (perhaps influenced by Frederic Harrison and his positivist friends) at no time did he support women's suffrage.

Bryce took an active part in the life of literary London, frequenting the social circles of Arthur Stanley (Dean Stanley) and Marian Evans (George Eliot), and becoming a founder member of the , the forerunner of the National Liberal Club, along with Leslie Stephen, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Harrison, and other Liberals and radicals (Harrison, 376). In the 1860s he accepted the general political leadership of Goldwin Smith, regius professor of history at Oxford since 1858, who was the confidant of Richard Cobden and John Bright. This link led to an energetic commitment to the cause of the North in the American Civil War, an issue which sharply divided English literary and leisured society. The support which the upper classes showed for the Confederacy, on anti-democratic grounds, propelled the academics to the left, and led in great measure to the strength of the democratic views shown by the symposia Essays on Reform and Questions for a Reformed Parliament, which Bryce had a substantial hand in editing, along with Albert Osliff Rutson, in 1867. Their contributors included Goldwin Smith, Leslie Stephen, Frederic Harrison, Lord Houghton, and A. V. Dicey; Alexander Macmillan was the enthusiastic publisher, and Bryce remained with the firm for the rest of his life. He contributed an essay entitled ‘The historical aspect of democracy’, in which he attacked critiques of Greek and Roman political history which were not founded in accurate knowledge of the politics and society of the city states and the republic. His lucid and informative Studies in Contemporary Biography (1903), though largely made up of obituary notices, provides a fine picture of the high-minded milieu in which he moved in those years.

Historian, jurist, and academic reformer

Essays on Reform was published by Macmillan only three years after it had produced the first of many editions of Bryce's The Holy Roman Empire, which had its origins in an Arnold prize essay of 1863. The result was both a popular success—it had run through sixty-five editions on both sides of the Atlantic by 1958—and of intellectual importance in introducing to British historical studies the historical and anthropological jurisprudence associated with Karl von Savigny (1779–1861). The work was also steeped in the pro-Germanism which characterized most of British academic life after the impact of the ‘liberal Anglicans’ and Carlyle, but it went beyond this in its exploration of the conditions for the exercise of supranational authority (Kleinknecht, 108–14). The success of this work further strengthened Bryce's contacts with British historians, notably the volatile high-church liberal Edward Augustus Freeman. But his ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was limited, and his closest link was with the radical John Richard Green and the dissenting Anglo-German Catholic Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. Later Bryce played an important role, in the organizational sense that Dicey had highlighted, in the foundation of the English Historical Review in 1885, following a meeting of Acton, Dean Church, Mandell Creighton, Richard Garnett, Sir Adolphus Ward, and Robertson Smith which was convened at Bryce's house in Bryanston Square. With his Oxford colleagues he was also instrumental in organizing the Law Quarterly Review, founded in 1883.

A visit with Dicey to the eastern seaboard states of America in 1870, besides sustaining an enthusiasm for American politics and society which was to last the rest of his life (with seven visits before 1921), acquainted Bryce with Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831–1902), another radical Irish Presbyterian and alumnus of the Academical Institution, who had emigrated to New York in 1856 and founded The Nation in 1865 (Tulloch, 82). Godkin, the original ‘mugwump’ (or principled republican reformer), gave him a commission to write a regular report on British politics for the weekly, which Bryce regarded as ‘the best … not only in America but in the whole world’. He was to contribute more than 300 articles to it in the next half-century, a useful source of income for an undemonstrative performer who was never likely to make a fortune at the bar, although he stuck it until 1882, and whose sole purely legal publication was The Trade Marks Registration Act, with Introduction and Notes on Trade Mark Law, in 1877.

Bryce's position as a college fellow who was not (as the law insisted) an Anglican was paradoxical and even uncomfortable. Along with most of his Oxford friends, however, he was insistent on pressing the issue of further university reform, opening all fellowships, professorships, and college emoluments to men of all faiths and none, on a not wholly enthusiastic Gladstone. This campaign, organized jointly between Liberals at the two universities, who to this end founded the Ad Eundem dining club in 1864, had its fulcrum among the ‘non-resident’ graduates in London, headed by Bryce's friend Charles Saville Roundell, fellow of Merton, on the Oxford side and Professor Henry Fawcett, representing Cambridge. A representative selection of 121 of these ‘lights of liberalism’ turned out at a rally in the Freemasons' Tavern, London, on 10 June 1864 to support a tests repeal measure moved by J. G. Dodson MP. These included, besides Bryce, Leslie Stephen, T. H. Green, T. H. Huxley, Thomas Hughes MP, John Bright MP, and Dean Stanley (Harvie, Lights of Liberalism, 246–56). The political connections which were then built up, particularly with politicians and organized nonconformity, bore fruit, after a ten-year campaign, in the abolition of university tests in 1871.

In the previous year Gladstone, now reconciled to reform, had appointed Bryce regius professor of civil law, a position he held until 1893. This position was more of political than of educational significance, since both civil law and professorships were marginal to Oxford studies; but it did give Bryce the high profile of presenting the candidates for higher degrees at the annual encaenia, and with his usual application he made the best of it by involving himself with the movement for the endowment of research.

Mark Pattison's plea, in Suggestions on Academical Organisation (1868), for Oxford and Cambridge as centres of research rather than teaching had no more enthusiastic supporter: it was ‘the best thing that any of us have produced’. Bryce was more consistently the ally of research than the mercurial Pattison, particularly in the field of comparative constitutional studies. The outcome of this was a series of lectures and papers on constitutional issues which were to have a considerable subsequent impact, although not quite in the way in which Bryce intended. Although he had sympathized with European nationalist movements, The Holy Roman Empire had still postulated the importance of an overarching authority from which subordinate legislatures derived their legitimacy; it was, for a Scots Presbyterian, a rather Catholic conception of mixed sovereignty, but not foreign to the Scottish tradition of ‘civic humanism’, with its conception of the fundamental importance of law rather than force in political life. This became apparent in a lecture, ‘Flexible and rigid constitutions’, delivered in the 1870s but not published until 1901, in which he contrasted the hard and fast codes of continental and American models with the ability of British politicians to agree on types of convention better fitted to the efficient and equitable dispatch of business. Nevertheless, by that time Bryce was less persuaded that the British paradigm offered checks against populistic interventions in the market and the jingoism which he and other Liberals had encountered during the Eastern question agitation.

Radical politician and home rule

The Eastern question agitation of 1876–8 proved an early peak in a developing political career. A limited income delayed Bryce's start (between £1000 and £3000 was necessary to contest a promising seat in 1868). After a defeat as a radical Liberal, standing against the ‘moderate Liberal’ telegraph magnate Sir John Pender in the Wick burghs in 1874, when the Liberals lost power, in his view, because of lack of policy—a radical view at the time—he played a leading part in the Bulgarian agitations in 1876. He and A. O. Rutson had both travelled in the area in 1876, and his friend Freeman had strong sympathies with the Orthodox church. With the trade unionists Henry Broadhurst and George Howell, and the artist and designer William Morris (en route to a much more radical position), Bryce went on to organize the National Liberal League in 1878, trying to unite working- and middle-class radicals behind an ‘advanced policy’. Probably as a result of this, and other causes such as his chairmanship of the Commons Preservation Society, he was selected by Liberal activists to fight the Tower Hamlets constituency in 1880. Bryce's 1876 visit also brought him into contact with the Armenian subjects of the Turkish empire, whose repression he combated through the founding of the Anglo-Armenian Society in 1879.

As a rather fastidious academic, however, Bryce was almost overwhelmed by having to cope with the problems of a packed slum constituency during the depression. Although most of his Commons activity concerned working-class issues, and he played a notable part in the process of involving Oxford University in the social problems of the East End by helping create Toynbee Hall in 1883 with Canon Samuel Barnett, as a memorial to the young Oxford historian Arnold Toynbee and to his close friend T. H. Green, his constituency experience did not make him confident about the future of democracy in an increasingly urban population. When the chance came to move to loyal and undemanding South Aberdeen in 1885, he took it. Subsequently he would visit his constituency for two weeks every year, putting aside one day to discuss problems with constituents. Nevertheless he reacted aggressively to what he encountered in the House of Commons in 1880: ‘The thorough-going selfishness of the plutocracy and especially of the landlords makes me more disposed to sweeping measures unfavourable to what they think their privileges than I should have otherwise been’ (letter to R. J. Bryce, 1880, Bryce MSS). But his major concerns were subsequently to lie with foreign and educational issues rather esoteric to the electorate as a whole. He was also prepared theoretically to move towards a more ‘rigid’ type of constitution, for two reasons. One was his involvement with Godkin and Sir John Seeley in the Imperial Federation League of 1884, in which he saw not only the possibility of constitutional co-operation among the self-governing colonies but the possible reconciliation with Britain of the United States. He wrote to a sceptical Freeman in December 1886 that his object was
to maintain our English citizenship and nationality over the whole world … I wish we could bring in the U.S.A. too: we ought never to have let them go out; nor do I despair of some sort of permanent arrangement with them in the future. (Harvie, ‘Ideology and home rule’, 313)
The other reason was the looming confrontation in Ireland.

‘Personally I think that no two men unless it be Morley and Hartington have gained so much by this crisis as you and myself’, Bryce wrote to Dicey in July 1886, at the height of the controversy over Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill (Harvie, ‘Ideology and home rule’, 298). In the Liberal administration of 1886 Bryce occupied the non-cabinet position of under-secretary for foreign affairs, junior to the earl of Rosebery. A loyal middle-of-the-road Liberal as well as a close academic friend of Gladstone, Bryce was a qualified home-ruler out of conviction. He had tried to create a Liberal protestant pressure group, the committee on Irish Affairs, to mediate between the Parnellites and the government after 1881, directing its propaganda mainly at Ulster Liberals, but he had started by mid-1884 to think in terms of a subordinate legislature in the pamphlet England and Ireland. Although Gladstone in the autumn of 1885 decided on a much more drastic measure Bryce quickly reconciled himself to it, much to the chagrin of many of his Ulster Liberal relatives, and academic friends, who became Unionists, Dicey and Goldwin Smith notable among them. The neurasthenic Smith and Bryce did not correspond for more than a decade, but relations with Dicey (whose physical infirmities made it necessary for Bryce to act as his unofficial literary agent) became even closer. Ironically, Dicey's conviction of the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster parliament, which he elevated into a timely dogma in 1886 with the publication of his Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, was in its essentials a development of Bryce's ‘Flexible and rigid constitutions’ argument. But Dicey, as ‘the prophet of the obvious’, got through to most MPs, who found themselves lost in Bryce's subtler and more referential arguments.

Bryce attempted to mediate between the radical Unionists and the Gladstonians in 1886, without success. Joseph Chamberlain denounced him as ‘a snivelling professor’ (Hurst, 381). But his suggested modification to the Government of Ireland Bill, the retention of a reduced number of Irish MPs at Westminster, brought some rebels back into the fold and was the basis of Gladstone's revived bill in 1893. Paid by the secret service fund, he set about organizing Essays on Reform-type symposia to further the cause of Irish home rule: Five Centuries of Irish History and The Handbook of Home Rule, with R. Barry O'Brien, came out in 1887, including two contributions by Godkin. At the same time he was, rather apprehensively, trying to warn Gladstone off Scottish home rule. In fact, he participated little in issues which engaged the Scots electorate, such as land reform and the disestablishment of the kirk, although he merits a mention in the history of Scottish recreation by his attempts in the 1880s and 1890s to secure walkers statutory public access to the Scottish mountains.

The American Commonwealth

Out of office Bryce, in his contemporaries' judgement a better performer in the House of Commons library than on the floor of the house, devoted himself to writing his greatest work, The American Commonwealth. Initially his ambition had been to write a life of Justinian (482–565), Eastern emperor and codifier of Roman law, and his discovery of an unknown manuscript life was published in the English Historical Review in 1887, but this biography was continually deferred by contemporary concerns. Following two trips to America, in 1881 and 1883, on both occasions travelling to the west and in 1883 as far as Hawaii, he decided to concentrate on a book which would revise Alexis de Toqueville's famous critique of 1838, Democracy in America. He was urged in this direction by Gladstone who, following the settlement of the Alabama arbitration in Geneva in 1871, wanted to build up a transatlantic co-operation which would repair the hostility of the 1860s (Tulloch, 70–73).

This was a particularly demanding assignment in view of the westward expansion of the Union, the incorporation of the post-bellum South, and a population which, at 50 million in 1880, had more than doubled since 1840. Bryce became an adept collector and analyst of ‘state constitutions, published government commissions, statistical compilations, party slip tickets, campaign literature, newspapers, advertisements, political memoirs such as Blaine's Twenty Years in Congress, reformist tracts, satirical descriptions of city politics such as Solid for Mulhooly’ (Tulloch, 80). He had often to codify and rationalize information that was difficult to obtain and to create his own statistical series. In this he was aided by a huge academic and political network, the members of which eagerly responded to requests for opinions and material: something that made his work, ultimately, more significant for America than for his own country.

Bryce's trips in the 1880s subsequently involved countless conversations with politicians and citizens at all social levels; when resident in Britain this was supplemented by a vast correspondence and involvement in daily and periodical journalism. It was Bryce's philosophy never to rely wholly on the printed word, and his recordings of dialogues and interviews, and observations of scenery, organizations, and customs, gave the book an enduring value as a comprehensive study of civil society which did much to counter the pessimism with which he had viewed American political life from the Grant presidencies of 1868–77 to the ‘gilded age’ of the 1880s.

However, Bryce's sources were on the whole derived from ‘high politics’. Hugh Tulloch comments of his treatment of stump and machine politicians that
his upbringing, his Presbyterian conscience and the American circles in which he moved, all combined to restrict his empathy … essentially he surveyed this class from the elevated heights of a Henry Adams rather than from below in Graziano's Shoeshine Parlor, where George Washington Plunkitt held daily court. (Tulloch, 90)
In the struggle between two of his closest associates, the mugwump Godkin and the practical reformer in the ‘muddy whirlpool’, Theodore Roosevelt, he carefully refused to take sides, to the latter's chagrin (Tulloch, 95–9).

With successive revisions after its publication in 1888, The American Commonwealth went through three comprehensive new editions, in 1889, 1893–5, and 1910, and remained in print long after his death. The National Union Catalog lists 101 editions by 1950, about a third of these being abridgements for American school use. Bryce took the line that the American constitution was essentially conservative, but that, in the flexibility of its civil society, something that it derived from the British tradition, America would be likely to avoid class conflict. ‘America marks the highest level, not only of material well-being but of intelligence and happiness, which the race has attained’; the optimism of his final conclusion was not shared by his friend Acton: ‘Where you speak like Macaulay speaking of 1688, I speak like Michelet speaking of 1789’ (Acton to Bryce, 1888, Bryce MSS).

Marriage and society

On 23 July 1889, now fifty-one, Bryce married Elizabeth Marion Ashton (d. 1939), the partly American daughter of a Manchester mill owner, a charming and intelligent woman twenty years his junior. Miss Ashton brought a substantial income, which enabled the Bryces to live well, with a town flat at 3 Buckingham Gate, London—friends noted ugly maids and glaring electric light—and Hindleap, a country house in an arts and crafts style near Forest Row in Sussex, built in 1898 and surrounded with an extensive garden stocked with the booty of Bryce's foreign trips. From the couple's letters the relationship seems to have been more partnership than passion; it saved Bryce from the fate of becoming a walking encyclopaedia or of falling down crevasses on solo jaunts, but there were no children. Aspects of the man were, however, less orthodox than those of most of his academic contemporaries. Bryce dressed in the somewhat bohemian manner of the Pre-Raphaelites: reefer jackets, loosely knotted bright blue ties, and fold-down collars; he was a pipe smoker throughout his long life and also rolled his own cigarettes. This radicalism could have odd moments of revival. In October 1892, on Tennyson's death, he suggested his old friend William Morris to Gladstone as poet laureate, albeit with a caveat about the acceptability of Morris's republicanism and revolutionary socialism; his second choice was the even more implausible Swinburne, then, rather despairingly, Coventry Patmore—‘at least he is a poet’. Lord Salisbury later appointed the unforgettably awful Alfred Austin, who at least was a tory.

Liberal governments

When Gladstone regained power in 1892 Bryce entered the cabinet as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. In this capacity he appointed the first working-class JPs in the duchy and accompanied Queen Victoria to Florence as minister in attendance. She liked ‘Mr Bryce, who knows so much and is so modest’. Lord Rosebery advanced him to the presidency of the Board of Trade in 1894. His achievements were not great, something partly to be accounted for by the short and troubled Liberal period in office (though Arthur Acland made an impressive success of the Board of Education in the same period). It was in fact Acland who suggested Bryce's most constructive work in this decade, as chairman of the royal commission on secondary education (1894–6). The commission also considered girls' schools, and Bryce insisted on the appointment of the first (three) women members of a royal commission, one of whom was Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, wife of his Cambridge friend Henry Sidgwick and sister of the Conservative leader of the Commons, Arthur Balfour. The commission envisaged a ministry of education, taking over a range of existing authorities. Its findings were to figure in the Balfour Education Act of 1902, setting up the county councils as education authorities for England and Wales and funding secondary education out of the rates; but some younger Liberals, notably Richard Burdon Haldane, regarded Bryce as fixed in a humanistic Oxford mould and slow to move on the development of provincial university colleges and technical education. Shortly afterwards he played a major part, along with his friends Sidgwick and Donald Mackay, Lord Reay, in establishing the British Academy in 1900 in a belated attempt to secure prestige, if not endowment, for research in the humanities. He was president of the Academy from 1913 to 1917, a foreign member of the Institut de France in 1904, and a member of the academies of Brussels (1896), Turin (1896), Naples (1903), and Stockholm, and the Imperial Academy of St Petersburg. The 1890s also saw Bryce's strongest ‘chivalric’ commitment, to the cause of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire (Dicey was similarly active on behalf of the Jews, and their friend John Westlake on behalf of the Finns). Bryce played a part in mobilizing the now retired Gladstone on his last crusade, in 1895–6, on the Armenians' behalf. In 1902, together with H. N. Brailsford and the Buxton brothers, he went on to found the Balkan Committee.

By this time Bryce's red hair had gone pure white, and with his jutting eyebrows and full moustache and beard he looked alarmingly like an energetic West Highland terrier. He had a vast range of information, few enemies, but a somewhat fact-bound cast of mind, which was scholarly rather than political, something which among party colleagues occasionally caused hilarity rather than conviction: ‘He knew every place, how to get there, how long it took you to get to the railhead, and how long it took you to cross the desert by camel, and all the rest of it’ (Harvie, Lights of Liberalism, 238).

Bryce's zest for travel also intervened. Like Anthony Trollope, whom he knew from the 1860s, he took advantage of the expansion of railways and steamer routes and wrote serious-mindedly about this. Transcaucasia and Ararat came out in 1877 and Impressions of South Africa in 1897. In the latter case he was over-influenced by the persuasiveness of Cecil Rhodes into an unwontedly imperialist attitude, but forecast the mounting tensions which were to erupt in the South African War. In this conflict he moderated his position and took the same critical but not explicitly pro-Boer stance as his Glasgow contemporary and friend the new Liberal leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, with whose old-fashioned radicalism he thoroughly agreed, backing him on free trade and bringing his own American expertise to bear on the ‘trustification’ of industry. By this time he was somewhat of a back number in the house. Arthur Balfour, in a letter to Edmund Gosse, was scathing about his performances:
I assure you his appearances in the House of Commons are those of a gabbling, foolish, muddled old man. Nobody could be older in mind, less elastic than Bryce … Bryce is a standing instance of the uselessness of the higher education. (Harvie, ‘Ideology and home rule’, 13)
When the Liberals took power in 1905 Campbell-Bannerman did not offer Bryce the Foreign Office, which he had thought himself fitted for, but the much more arduous and less rewarding portfolio of the Irish chief secretaryship. His tenure of this was brief and unsuccessful. He hoped to be able to carry an Irish council bill, as a partial step towards home rule, but saw this dismissed out of hand by John Redmond and the nationalists. The Irish, having experienced in Gerald Balfour and George Wyndham two Unionists running far ahead of their party in sympathy for Irish causes, regarded the cautious Ulster Presbyterian as something of a backslider. An attempt at an Irish university bill failed, but nevertheless the royal commission on Irish university education, which he convened in 1907, did much to settle the awkward problem of relationships between the Catholic church and the movement for higher educational reform, which had plagued governments since Gladstone's abortive bill of 1873.

Ambassador to Washington, 1907–1913

Moreover Bryce, whose economic views were broadly those of Cobden and Bright, was out of sympathy with the radical tenor of the Liberal government's policies—being suspicious of the trade unions, of redistributive taxation, and, above all, of Lloyd George. Campbell-Bannerman's solution was the elegant one of sending Bryce to Washington as ambassador in 1907, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Charles Hardinge, remarking cynically:
I realised he would be greatly appreciated in America as knowing more of the history and constitution of America than most Americans. He had also the quality of liking to make long and rather dull speeches on commonplace subjects which I knew to be a trait that would be possible with the American masses. He had also a charming and agreeable wife. (Harvie, Lights of Liberalism, 238)
Refusing a peerage in 1907 and 1910, but being awarded the Order of Merit in 1907, Bryce stayed in Washington until 1913. He made two lengthy excursions, one to South America and the other to Australia, respectively in 1909 and 1912, from which stemmed South America: Observations and Impressions (1913) and part of the book Modern Democracies that he had first planned in 1904. His mission greatly enhanced the friendly co-operation between the two powers, less through close relationships with presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft than through his popularity with the American public. Roosevelt was devoted to the same sort of strenuous exercise that Bryce enjoyed, while Bryce's sympathies had generally lain with the Republicans since the days of Abraham Lincoln, yet despite earlier co-operation on The American Commonwealth Roosevelt was privately dismissive, sharing his wife's opinion that Bryce was a ‘worthy and dull old person’ (Perkins, 277). Nor were relations with Roosevelt's successor, Taft, particularly close. With Taft's opponent, Woodrow Wilson, he shared an affinity as a political scientist of south-west Scottish Presbyterian origins, but Wilson took office only in the last year of Bryce's embassy.

Bryce's diplomatic achievements were qualified. He carried through a limited arbitration treaty between Britain and the USA, finalized on 4 April 1908. He also paid studious attention to Canadian interests after a visit to Ottawa in April 1907, noting that the dominion was beginning to chafe against British suzerainty. The co-operation which he negotiated over fishery, financial, and boundary issues was to have valuable results when war broke out. Attempts at the conclusion of more extensive free trade and a permanent arbitration commission, however, foundered on opposition in congress. The dispute between Britain and the USA about the privileges granted to American shipping using the new Panama Canal remained unresolved (though it was settled in 1914). But more influential than anything else was Bryce's sympathy with and absorption in American intellectual and social life, from the standpoint of a rather circumspect American progressive. Booker T. Washington was entertained at the embassy, and another Ulster Presbyterian, Sir Roger Casement, introduced to Roosevelt to publicize his inquiry into the maltreatment of Brazilian rubber workers in Putumayo. In the course of his embassy ‘Old Man Bryce’ visited every state, revelling in a life which he was convinced had improved while that of Europe had deteriorated.

Liberal peer

On his return from America (via Japan, China, and India) Bryce was ennobled (on 28 January 1914) as Viscount Bryce of Dechmont in the county of Lanark, and took an active role in the upper house, which he found more congenial than life as an MP. But within months war had broken out, and Bryce had enrolled as a reluctant partisan. His reputation had been that of a pro-American and a thorn in the flesh of successive British governments in the cause of civil rights, so the choice of him by the British Foreign Office in September 1914 as the chairman of a six-man committee to investigate German conduct in occupied Belgium was an inspired act. The work of the Bryce committee, which reported in May 1915, remains controversial, and many of the stories of atrocities which it publicized were shown up as false (Knightley, 84). Evidence was taken by lawyers in England, without corroboration, and all the proceedings of the inquiry were subsequently destroyed, although Bryce himself learned about the distortions only after the war. His report was blamed for creating ‘atrocity fatigue’ during the Second World War, when the British public simply refused to believe the far worse (and true) stories of Nazi genocide. Bryce was temperamentally, and as a historian, pro-German, so this reversal of expectations, however provoked, had a violent effect on his outlook: ‘Better anything than the destruction of morality which has come in Germany!’ Yet the tribulations of the Belgians were to be as nothing compared to the genocide practised by the Turks on Bryce's Armenian friends. Much of this pessimism was conveyed in his private correspondence with British and American academics and politicians, notably Dicey, President Eliot of Princeton, and Governor Charles Evans Hughes, and in the tone of his last lengthy work, Modern Democracies, undertaken during the war.

These two volumes made up a very uneven survey which covered the white dominions, America, and Europe (but not Britain), and was published in 1921. Although Bryce's confidence in America was undimmed, his diagnosis of the other liberal nationalisms was gloomy, at a time when the Versailles treaty had invested so much in their example. The Fabian Graham Wallas had attacked Bryce's ‘rationalist fallacy’ in Human Nature in Politics (1908):
What does Mr Bryce mean by ‘ideal democracy’? If it means anything, it means the best form of democracy which is consistent with the facts of human nature. But one feels … that Mr Bryce means by these words the kind of democracy which might be possible if human nature were as he himself would like it to be, and as he was taught at Oxford to think that it was. (Wallas, 126)
The war, and the power of élites in ‘welfarist’ politics, seemed to bear out Wallas's post-Freudian stress on political ‘behaviourism’, though recent interest in the constitution of ‘principled societies’ may have swung the argument back in Bryce's favour.

However, other wartime work was more fruitful; Bryce was a member of the allied inter-parliamentary conference and the chair of a joint conference of both houses into the future of the House of Lords which recommended in 1917 a 326-member second chamber. Some 246 members were to be elected by groups of MPs arranged by region and voting by single transferable vote, and 80 were to be elected for twelve years by a joint committee of both houses of parliament. Differences between the two houses would be settled by joint consultation. Nothing, however, came of these proposals. From 1914 Bryce also helped set up various informal bodies which pressed for the creation of a League of Nations. He joined figures from the Union of Democratic Control, such as Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Graham Wallas, and J. A. Hobson, in drafting ‘Proposals for the prevention of future wars’ (1915)—‘by far the most influential of the preliminary schemes for a League of Nations’, and pressed for the creation of a permanent council for the league (Brennan, 146). The Bryce memorandum to the British government on 8 August 1917, outlining a structure for the league and insisting on the participation of the United States, was a key document in the Versailles negotiations, although its hopes were to be betrayed by American non-ratification. Despite his suspicion of socialism and abhorrence of Bolshevism, Bryce co-operated with many younger Liberals and progressives in this cause, and that of other minorities, such as the Jews and the Macedonians. Although siding with Asquith after the split in the Liberal Party, he remained in contact with the Lloyd Georgeites through his friend, and later executor and biographer, the Oxford don H. A. L. Fisher, education minister in 1916–22.

Death and assessment

Bryce continued active in the House of Lords, moving in December 1921, with another former Irish chief secretary, John Morley, the resolution which greeted the signing of the treaty between Britain and the forces which would constitute the Irish Free State. Still commanding all his powers, he died, quite unexpectedly, of heart failure in his sleep while on holiday at the Victoria Hotel, Sidmouth, Devon, on 22 January 1922: ‘It was euthanasia’, commented a colleague. After cremation at Golders Green and an Anglican memorial service in Westminster Abbey (and Greek and Armenian services in their own London churches) his ashes were buried next to those of his parents in the Grange cemetery in Edinburgh. Lady Bryce lived on until 27 December 1939.

One of Bryce's volumes of essays was called The Hindrances to Good Citizenship (1909). This characterized the heavily ethical content of his liberalism, which subsequent behaviourist analysis tended to dismiss as wilfully fastidious. However, his essentially ‘civic republican’ doctrine, and his sense of the need for a moral bond between civil society and a decentralized state, can be seen as fitting him into the ‘civic humanism’ of the tradition explored by John Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment (1975), and his essay ‘Flexible and rigid constitutions’ has been praised by Judge David Edward of the European Court of Justice as a precedent for the constitution of the European Union, in both its federal and regional aspects.



The Times (23 Jan 1922) · The Times (24 Jan 1922) · The Times (31 Jan 1922) · H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce, 2 vols. (1927) · H. A. L. Fisher, ‘Viscount Bryce of Dechmont, O. M., 1938–1922’, PBA, 12 (1926), 297–305 · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Bryce · E. S. Ions, James Bryce and American democracy, 1870–1922 (1968) · T. Kleinknecht, Imperiale und internationale Ordnung: eine Untersuchung zum anglo-amerikanischen Gelehrtenliberalismus am Beispiel von James Bryce, 1838–1922 (1985) · C. Harvie, The lights of liberalism: university liberals and the challenge of democracy, 1860–86 (1976) · C. Harvie, ‘Ideology and home rule: James Bryce, A. V. Dicey and Ireland, 1880–1887’, EngHR, 91 (1976), 298–314 · P. Neary, ‘Grey, Bryce, and the settlement of Canadian–American differences, 1905–1911’, Canadian Historical Review, 49 (1968), 357–80 · T. Wilson, ‘Lord Bryce's investigation into alleged German atrocities in Belgium’, Journal of Contemporary History, 14 (1979), 369–83 · A. C. Hepburn, ‘The Irish Councils Bill and the fall of Sir Anthony Macdonnell, 1906–7’, Irish Historical Studies, 17 (1970–71), 470–98 · F. Harrison, Realities and ideals (1908) · P. Knightley, The first casualty: the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (1975) · H. Pelling, America and the British left (1956) · B. Perkins, The great rapprochement: England and the United States, 1895–1914 (1969) · H. Tulloch, James Bryce's ‘American Commonwealth’: the Anglo-American background (1988) · Gladstone, Diaries · G. Wallas, Human nature in politics (1908) · M. Hurst, Joseph Chamberlain and liberal reunion (1967) · D. Edward, Federalism and democracy [forthcoming] · J. W. Brennan, ‘Bryce, James, first Viscount’, BDMBR, vol. 3, pt 1


Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers · Boston PL, letters · NL Ire., corresp. and papers relating to Ireland · NL Scot., Add. MSS 1011–1015 · TNA: PRO, corresp. relating to Hungary, FO 800/331–335 |  BL, letters to William Archer, Add. MS 45290 · BL, corresp. with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Add. MS 41211 · BL, corresp. with Lord Carnarvon, Add. MS 60775 · BL, letters to T. H. S. Escott, Add. MS 58776 · BL, letters to Lord Gladstone, Add. MSS 46019, 46064 · BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44463–44789, passim · BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MSS 55086–55088 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43542 · BL, corresp. with C. P. Scott, Add. MS 50909, passim · BL, letters to J. A. Spender, Add. MSS 46391–46392 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. H. Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir William Harcourt and Lewis Harcourt · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Kimberley · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray · Bodl. Oxf., letters to C. H. Pearson · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Ponsonby · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Selborne · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Cecil Spring-Rice · CAC Cam., letters to W. T. Stead · Christ's College, Cambridge, Stead MSS · CUL, letters to Lord Acton · CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge · Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to Lord Howard of Penrith · DWL, letters to Henry Allon · JRL, letters to C. P. Scott · King's Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · NA Canada, corresp. with Earl Grey · NA Canada, corresp. with Sir George Parkin · NA Scot., corresp. with G. W. Balfour · NA Scot., corresp. with Philip Kerr · NL Aus., letters to Alfred Deakin · NL Ire., letters to A. S. Green · NL Ire., corresp. with Sir John Redmond · NL Scot., corresp., mainly with Lord Rosebery and Sir Patrick Geddes · Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · Plunkett Foundation, Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire, corresp. with Sir Horace Plunkett · Society of Psychical Research, London, corresp. with Sir Oliver Lodge · TCD, corresp. with John Dillon · U. Birm. L., corresp. with W. H. Dawson · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to R. S. Watson and E. S. Watson · U. St Andr. L., letters to Wilfred Ward · UCL, letters to James Sully · University of Toronto Library, corresp. with James Manor · Wellcome L., letters to Sir Thomas Barlow · Yale U., Sterling Memorial Library, corresp. with Edward House  



BFINA, propaganda film footage (Hepworth Manufacturing Company)


A. Cope, oils, 1880–81, priv. coll. · W. & D. Downey, woodburytype photograph, pubd 1893, NPG · A. Delecluse, oils, 1895–9, priv. coll. · B. Stone, photograph, 1898, NPG · J. Wilson Forster, oils, c.1899, Trinity College, Oxford · G. C. Beresford, photographs, 1902, NPG [see illus.] · G. Reid, oils, 1905, Oriel College, Oxford · E. Moore, oils, 1907, NPG · S. Thomas, oils, c.1912, National Liberal Club, London · B. Robinson, pen-and-ink drawing, 1913, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, before 1917, NPG · H. Furniss, drawings, NPG · S. P. Hall, pencil drawing, NPG · W. Orpen, oils, Aberdeen Art Gallery · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, Scot. NPG · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG · Spy [L. Ward], cartoon, repro. in VF (25 Feb 1893) · Wright, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (25 Feb 1893) · bust; presented to Lady Bryce in 1923 · drawings, NPG

Wealth at death  

£36,205 14s. 0d.: probate, 15 July 1922, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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James Bryce (1838–1922): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32141